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Meetings to draw 6,000 Presbyterians to town

Jason Cato
| Friday, June 29, 2012, 9:29 p.m.
Vendors are set up for the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown, on Friday, June 29, 2012.
Heidi Murrin  |  PIttsburgh Tribune-Review
Vendors are set up for the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown, on Friday, June 29, 2012. Heidi Murrin | PIttsburgh Tribune-Review

Presbyterians first swarmed the shores of what is now known as Pittsburgh when the British defeated the French at Fort Duquesne more than 250 years ago.

Today, they arrive in droves as the Presbyterian Church (USA) kicks off its 220th General Assembly in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. The convention runs through Saturday and is expected to attract as many as 6,000 people, including more than 3,500 for this afternoon's opening worship service.

“We're so pleased Pittsburgh put out the welcome carpet for this grand event,” the Rev. Sheldon Sorge, pastor of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, said jokingly in noting the 2012 EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta and the Brothers of the Sun Tour featuring country superstars Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw also are in town. “We're hoping that everyone who comes to the General Assembly will have an enjoyable enough experience that they will come back to Pittsburgh.”

Sorge said he hopes another half century doesn't pass before the country's largest Presbyterian denomination, based in Louisville, Ky., brings its biennial national meeting back here.

The General Assembly last was in Pittsburgh in 1958. That meeting featured the reunification of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the United Presbyterian Church of North America to form the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. The Presbyterian Church (USA) was formed by a subsequent merger in 1983.

This convention features several business items that could lead to contentious debate, including potential votes on gay marriage, immigration and Israeli-Palestinian issues.

“I hope the result of having some very heavy issues on this docket will bring the church together,” said the Rev. Gradye Parsons of Louisville, the church's Stated Clerk of the General Assembly. “I hope we come out of this with people a little more grounded and feeling like there is some momentum.” Organizers expect people from all over the country and abroad to attend.

Those attendees are expected to generate $6.3 million in direct spending on things like hotels, restaurants and transportation, said Jason Fulvi, executive vice president of VisitPittsburgh, the region's tourism bureau.

“It's certainly one of the largest conventions of the calendar year,” Fulvi said. Negotiations with the Presbyterian Church (USA) started in 2005, and the deal was signed in 2006. “When we first booked it, it seemed so far out. And now it's right upon us.”

The assembly convention continues a busy tourism streak for the city, which hosted the Anthrocon convention and NHL Draft this month. After the Presbyterians leave in July, the city will host the National Association of Counties and the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.

“It's a nice, busy stretch for everybody,” Fulvi said. “The continued exposure is good.”

That exposure extends to the Pittsburgh Presbytery and its 145 congregations and 37,000 members in Allegheny County, Sorge said.

“It makes the church less abstract,” he said. “I think that could be a benefit for us. I hold out hope that we get a deeper sense of identification with our denomination.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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